Television & Technology: Am I A Horrible Parent If My Baby Watches TV?

My friend Ilima is a highly educated, successful career Mom who reads just about everything, in her capacity as a newspaper reporter. So of course she has come across the American Academy of Pediatrics’ warning about television: No “Screen Time” for children ages two and younger. None. Nada. Zip. And she wonders if this warning is absolute, and how worried should she be about it?

One of my most popular posts dealt with this issue, and I got blasted by the Stonyfield Farms yogurt people, of all things. They obviously hadn’t read my entire post, and who exactly DID write their complaint about me, anyway? But I digress.

The AAP really means business; when they say “no screen time for babies,” they mean it. But how realistic is this? And how should we interpret that advice? We wonder, “Hey, what about a Baby Einstein video now and again, while I fix lunch? Is that really so bad?” Or, for families with older children as well, “How about when the Big Kids come home after school and watch a show as they wind down from their day? What am I supposed to do with the baby while they watch something? Will something terrible happen if the baby catches an episode of Hannah Montana?” And if we’ve been allowing the little ones to watch the tube, we worry about whether we’ve done irreparable damage to their developing minds. Is all of that college-savings money for naught? Little neurons blown away by Sesame Street?

Our “Good-Enough” parenting selves say, Wait a minute. Surely some well-chosen shows watched for a limited amount of time can’t be so horrible.

I say: Your “Good-Enough” instincts are right.

As an Early Intervention psychologist, I pay home visits to evaluate the development of young children. Sometimes, I’m greeted by a huge, blaring television, left on 24/7, with few books or toys to be found. The parents in these homes are struggling with paying bills, keeping food on the table, and other major problems. The children often have developmental delays. Why? Because their parents are struggling to make basic ends meet. Maximizing the psychological and emotional development of their children is an unfortunate luxury they can’t afford. High-quality childcare and access to parenting resources isn’t available to many in this country.

I’m not saying that developmental delays are always caused by poverty and other environmental problems…but it certainly can be a contributing factor in many cases. And in those homes, a TV being left on 24/7 is part of the whole picture of lack of education and resources that contributes to developmental delay.

The AAP statistics on cognitive deficits and TV look at all kinds of households, and don’t discriminate as to the type of television watched. The don’t examine all the factors we’re interested in here at BabyShrink. So again, we’re forced to rely on our our own best instincts as “Good-Enough” parents. Our best instincts tell us that there has to be a middle ground. Based on your comments and emails to me, this is what your instincts are saying:

Don’t leave the TV on as background noise. It takes a lot of mental effort to filter out the constant stimulation, and babies have less ability to do that anyway.

Don’t let babies watch stuff that wasn’t specially created for babies. Minimize the fast-moving shows with quick cuts and changes.

However, don’t beat yourself up if the baby ends up watching some of the “older kids” programs. You can’t create a PERFECT environment, just a GOOD-ENOUGH one.

And your instincts are backed up by research as well. (This is a good synopsis, which shows that the issue is far more complex than a simple “yes or no” rule.)

You as parent are by far the best teacher your baby can have. No TV show can even come close. If you’ve somehow ended up leaving the TV on more and more, re-think how to manage your day and the kids with less TV. Quiet has a way of stimulating creativity, for everyone.

By the same token, it’s OK if your baby watches a little quality TV now and again. Not only is it enjoyable to her, it gives YOU a break for a few minutes. And I’m very interested in supporting you in your ability to get a break from time to time. Because that’s good for YOU — and what’s good for YOU is ultimately good for your whole family.

And the AAP statistics didn’t examine that.

Welcome to BabyShrink.com, where parents turn for open, honest and direct answers to questions regarding their babies, toddlers and children up to age seven. Dr. Heather, the author of BabyShrink, is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. She's also the mother of four young children, which gives her the unique ability to respond to parents' inquiries about the social, emotional and behavioral development of your children from both clinical and practical points of view.

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Posted in Baby Behavior Problems, In-Depth Parenting Advice, Television & Technology, Young Child Behavior
12 comments on “Television & Technology: Am I A Horrible Parent If My Baby Watches TV?
  1. Katie says:

    I’m wondering – neither my husband or I watch much TV. But, we both love to listen to audiobooks and I also really enjoy listening to podcasts. What kind of effect does just having the audio on in the background have on my baby?

  2. I know I’m horrible. My daughter (16 months old now) asks for “Signing Time” whenever the television is off.

    We watch a lot of “Signing Time”.

    But really that’s the only show she’s interested in. Even if I have the television on she’s off doing something else. Get the tv flashing the sign for “hippo” though and she makes a bee-line for the screen.

    So, more television than probably most people allow; but she also signs like nobody’s business, and she’s learned that she can LEARN signs by watching the show, so she pays attention to what is going on, as an active watcher, rather than just letting it all wash over her and creating unpredictable and unnecessary patterns in her neural network.

    It makes me less crazy.

  3. Crystal says:

    In general, I have no intentions of letting my daughter (due in 8 1/2 weeks) watching tv.

    BUT….

    My husband (her dad) can not wait for that first Sunday after she’s born to put her in her brand new Miami Dolphins onesie and see if all the lecturing he’s been giving my belly about the rules of football have somehow produced a superbaby who will come out of the womb rooting for the Dolphins complete with the fight song already memorized and known by heart.

    Ok, I exaggerate, but the truth is that this is one of the things he is most excited about (that and teaching her Math) and I’m not going to burst his bubble and say there’s no way she’s going to watch tv until she’s two…you’ll just have to wait, Mister.

    Let’s be real–she’ll fall asleep, he’ll yell at the tv, wake her up and she’ll start crying. At which point I will be called in to breastfeed/change/calm the baby.

    But none of that changes what my husband believes deep in his heart, which is that he’s bonding with her over something special.

    So yeah, she’ll get to watch some Sunday afternoon football before she’s two. She’ll probably also be treated to some Red Sox/Yankees games before then because, really…we’re going to watch them. And is it really the end of the world if I put on something now and then when she’s in the room?

    My parenting instincts say no, especially since we also have a full bookcase of books, and have been reading to her since she was only 8 weeks old in utero and didn’t even have ears. We’re both college grads who, during our last move, had enough boxes of books that it accounted for 1/2 of all the boxes moved into the apartment.

    I think it’s about balance. There’s a big difference between parking your kid in front of a tv and doing something else and having something on that causes you to interact and talk and explain things to the baby that they won’t understand for years, but that is still interaction.

    Sorry…didn’t mean for this to become an entry by itself.

  4. Dr. Heather says:

    KATIE:

    Excellent question. There does not seem to be a “scientific” answer out there, but as is often the case, the best thing is to use our parental instincts about OUR PARTICULAR BABY.

    Experiment with different types and sound with your baby, and see how she reacts. Is feeding or sleep or activity level affected? Make note, and use what you find to help you get your answer. (Your baby may also change with time.)

    Of course, the obvious: LOUD sounds are not good for tiny ears. But each baby is so different: Our second baby was very bothered by sound and general, (even music) and still is, at age 5. But our third can sleep through HUGE amounts of noise, and always could….he also loves music.

    BPD:

    Making you less crazy is worth it.

    And you’re NOT horrible! Anyone who is curious about what goes on at a site called “BabyShrink” is, by definition, interested in the optimum development of their child. Right? And you know me….there is no “optimum” for the child unless there is “optimum” for the parents. (Or perhaps I should say there is no “Good Enough” for the child unless there is “Good Enough” for the parents!)

    CRYSTAL:

    Excellent points. YES, the simple fact that your baby and her Daddy will be bonding over a sports program will be priceless in and of itself. Watching the Olympics at our house was a perfect example of that: Jock Dad conveying his knowledge and enthusiasm for sports to the kids. I know they’ll always feel close to him through sports (among other things). How could I deny that to them….even the baby?

  5. mamabigdog says:

    The whole TV debate started such a long time ago, promulgated by those who say all TV is abhorrent, and anyone who partakes (regardless of age) is a heathen.

    Whatever.

    My kids have consistently watched 1-3 shows per season on a regular basis since they were little- really little. We are all avid readers in our house, and eclectic in our music tastes. When they were small, they always had lots of toys and books, even though I was a struggling single mom for some of that time. Amazing things can be done with secondhand stuff for parents on a budget.

    I’m really sick of the TV police telling me that my kid’s brains are nothing but oatmeal because they watched TV when they were small, and continue to watch today. I’d put either of my kids up against those naysayers in a debate on current events any day- they are well-informed and discriminating users of modern media. Too bad more people aren’t these days.

  6. LorieD says:

    Even though I’m almost a week behind, let me say how much I love you Dr. Heather!

    I was one of those Pre-parents who thought letting your kids watch TV was the epitome of lazy and bordered on child abuse. Having grown up without a television (frankly…that made me a bit weird…in case you haven’t noticed), I wouldnt have noticed if ours quit working for weeks.

    I was going to be a perfect parent and I filled the house with books. And then…around 18mo when she was no longer content to play on her own or do whatever I wanted to do, she settled on her favorite book…and OMG!… All day long she’d request/demand “Read Mommy! Read Mommy! Again! Again! Mommy! Mommy! Book! Book!” I began to think I would never be able to move in my house again without her hanging off my leg.

    Then one day while trying to get one measly load of laundry folded and after reading “Bunny & Me” for the eighteenth-hundred time – … I heard myself say “Wouldn’t you rather watch some TV?”

    Since then, Dora has become my BEST FRIEND! Without her, we would be living in filth, with no clean clothes & I certainly wouldn’t get to read any blogs. My daughter is talking way above a 2yo level, has remarkable social skills and manners and still loves books & toys. That’s “Good Enough” for me!

    So, thanks again for keeping us grounded!

  7. Dr. Heather says:

    MBD:

    You are exactly right — we need to be “well-informed and discriminating users of modern media”. So well-put. Simple edicts giving us black-and-white directives can’t possibly help us think through all the complexities we face as parents. It makes us second-guess our own best instincts about our kids, and THAT is way more damaging than watching a “good enough” TV show.

  8. Dr. Heather says:

    LorieD:

    I was ALSO one of those judgmental pre-parents who imagined no drugs at delivery, nursing exclusively until one year or older, NO pacifiers or TV, 100% wholesome, organic home-made meals at all times, and lovely exclusively handmade nontoxic wood toys.

    Then my first baby was born.

    It took me quite a bit of angst (and help from my own therapist, who is an infant development specialist) to realize that I was making EVERYBODY crazy trying to be the “perfect parent”. My stress about it interfered with my sleep and my health. It was not optimal for the baby, my husband, or me.

    Having a second baby fairly quickly also helped me calm down and get into the swing of being a “good enough” mom. And I started to see that simplistic directives about parenting had little (or nothing) to do with the development of each unique child.

    All we can do is strive to provide a “good enough” foundation and environment for our kids; much like having a nicely composted and prepared soil for our garden. You don’t get to pick the types of seeds that are planted there….you don’t have a ton of control over the ultimate outcome…all you can do is provide a nurturing foundation….and let them grow!

  9. Katie Kat says:

    I think this is one of my biggest “issues” with myself… I feel I let my kiddo (Bethany; 3) watch too much TV. But, in reality, it’s not like it’s ALL I let her do. And it’s not like I’m letting her watch Law & Order, it’s DORA for gosh sakes!

    This debate will always be a hot one, and I believe the only real answer is to say “All things in moderation.” (Which is what you DID say Heather!)

  10. Momo Fali says:

    My son is developmentally delayed and is darn near obsessed with Little Einsteins. So much so, that he hums classical music all day long and his occupational therapist is now insisting we start music lessons. His kindergarten teacher just told me a few days ago that, academically, he is the best in her class. I’d just like to give a shout out to Leo, Quincy, June, Annie and Rocket for all their help in getting him where he is today.

  11. Viv says:

    Dr. Heather,

    I really like your webisites. I recently started a link sharing community for parents, I was wondering if you would like to submit your link (or any other links you like) so that people who have joined the community can get to know your work?

  12. Robin says:

    This is cross posted from another article about this same issue:
    I will admit that my 2 yr old gets a lot of TV time. 3-4 hours a day. But, most often we are watching it with him and it is always shows geared to his age group like Sesame Street or other shows on Sprout channel (except for one hour in the evenings when we sometimes watch a family oriented program like Extreme Home Makeover). Many of the shows are recorded on the DVR so he rarely sees a commercial. When he loses interest in the TV we mute it or turn it off. He also wants to interact with the computer a lot and so we let him play with toddler programs like Baby Giggles. He is familiar now with the keyboard and is learning to use the mouse. We use YouTube a lot to let him watch classic Sesame Street videos which he loves. Because he is in love with the alphabet and numbers, the YouTube videos of people singing the alphabet and counting videos get a lot of play.
    In a way I see these items as tools he needs to learn to use. Skill sets that will help him later in life since our world is so technology oriented.
    He may be one of the rare cases tho that can handle this since he shows no signs of ADD or ADHD or Autism. He is 25 months old and knows his alphabet back and forth, can count to twenty back and forth and can already read 6 words by sight and spell his name. He is also trying hard to learn to write and asks us to write out letters and numbers so he can draw over them. All advanced skills for his age.
    Of course it is not all of this and nothing else, he adores going to the playground and really seems to enjoy his little playhouse. He likes music toys and making noise as well as reading books, drawing or painting.

    Now, having said all that, I will say that one of our household rules is that the TV is off at bedtime.

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About Dr. Heather
About Dr. Heather
I'm Dr. Heather Wittenberg, child psychologist and mom of four. I specialize in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers -- and parents! Here, we solve your child's most difficult sleeping, pooping, crying, and eating challenges. My advice is based in neuroscience, but written in grab-and-go terms you can use immediately. I've been featured in national parenting magazines, as a television guest expert, and as a parenting writer. Welcome!

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